A Dash of Daring. Carmel Snow And Her Life In Fashion, Art, and Letters
By Penelope Rowlands
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It is now common, among the fashion cognescenti, to be highly aware of the editorial talent that shapes our experience of fashion. The editors of fashion’s heavy hitting magazines define trends as much as they report on them. And editors since the flamboyant Diana Vreeland (Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue) have become celebrities of a kind, as well-known as those who fill the magazine’s pages.
This was not always the case. Edna Woolman Chase, longtime editor of Vogue, for one, is no more well-known today than she was in her time. This probably explains why A Dash of Daring is the first biography of editor-in-chief, Carmel Snow (1887–1961), who, with a team that included art director Alexey Brodovitch, photographer Richard Avedon, and Vreeland, from 1932 to 1957 engineered the metamorphosis of Harper’s Bazaar from a stodgy fashion book to a dynamic testament to modernity.
It’s a shame that this biography was written by Penelope Rowlands, whose self-conscious intrusions into the text are major speed-bumps on the road to the story at hand. Rowlands continually makes comments and asides—contemporary commentary, ham-fisted foreshadowing, and stating the obvious with benefit of decades of hindsight—that tear the narrative out of its time. At their most base, the comments include Monty Python’s, “Wink wink, nudge nudge,” and the teenager’s favorite mono-word sentence, “Whatever.”
Whatever. The story itself is worth tripping over Rowlandisms. Carmel Snow is a fascinatingly driven workaholic with what all describe as unerring taste and a great sense of humor. She was also, from a young age, plugged into a network of the greatest creative talent of her time. Snow published Truman Capote, commissioned Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and it was at Bazaar that Andy Warhol got his first break. She is quoted as saying that she wanted to make a magazine, “for well-dressed women with well-dressed minds.” And the magazine that she and Brodovitch created—chock full of firsts like outdoor photography, models in motion, dramatic type and white space—not only outpaced rival Vogue, but became the most modern publication of its time.
Daughter of an Irish immigrant widow who became a celebrated New York dressmaking magnates, creating gowns for the elite, Snow did not enter the world of publishing until she was in her thirties (after a decade of NY nightlife, a socialite’s travels, and working for her domineering mother), and then it was at the behest of Conde Nast himself, who asked her to join Vogue. After chafing under Chase, while simultaneously being taken under Nast’s wing, she eventually jumped ship to Harper’s Bazar (later Harper’s Bazaar).
Dash does a reasonably good job of delving into Snow’s family life, her distant marriage, her close extended family. But the stories of her life at Bazaar, which was, after all, the center of Snow’s life, are the most compelling. Whether standing up to the outsized William Randolph Hearst, filling Bazaar’s pages with cutting-edge fiction and art, championing future legends like Balenciaga, fearlessly boarding the first eastbound Pan Am flight, or making quick, (fashion) world-tilting decisions based on her almost dead-eye intuition, Snow is a fascinating figure to follow.
This is an essential read for anyone interested in the evolution of the modern fashion mag, its examination of the basic armature for the magazine, as well as the revolutionary players that populated Snow’s world.